Tag Archive | Westroads Mall Shooting

Never Forget

I’m having a hard time looking at social media today.

In the days, weeks, months and years after, we all used the phrase Never Forget. So today, 10 years removed from that overcast, frigid day in Omaha, of course countless media outlets and people are recounting where they were, what witnesses remember, and how we all feel about it now.

I guess I feel bad retweeting, sharing, posting because I was merely a storyteller that day, and not part of what happened. It’s like I don’t have the right to remind people of the anniversary. I remember the day after, Rob sitting in our story meeting and sharing what a first responder had told him… that in the hours after the massacre, standing inside of Von Maur, he could hear someone’s cell phone ringing, ringing, ringing, over and over… and he knew a victim’s loved one was on the other end. What I experienced that day was nothing.

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The shooter had been in and out of juvenile courtrooms since he was a toddler. Court files several inches thick shed light on a troubled child, talking about death and violence from an early age, threatening the very people who loved him. From all indications (noted in this article from ABC News), his father did everything he could to help him, turning to the state for more than a quarter of a million dollars in therapy and services.

We went to their home that day. I worked with legendary photojournalist Pete Soby, and together, we knocked on the shooter’s father’s door. He opened the door, he listened, he said no comment. We returned to the car, and watched one reporter after another do the same thing we had just done. I remember then seeing that father and someone else come outside to shovel snow. Every photographer got out and got video of them.. just shoveling silently.

Later that day or early the next, we returned to that house. So many questions.. what happened to this young man? WHY did he do this? There had to be reasons.. why would he unleash this terror on complete strangers?? WHY??? We went back to that house for answers. Once again, we pulled up along the curb and parked.. and I broke down. I could not force myself to get out of that car. That man had also lost a loved one in the shootings, his son, coupled with the unimaginable weight of what his child had done. I could not knock on his door again.

Soby was a journalist with a rare gift: throughout his career he found the perfect balance of aggression and compassion. He knew what our responsibility was as journalists and how to get a story, but he never forgot people are human beings first, not faceless subjects in our work. He got out of the car and knocked on that door. When Pete came back, he told me after the father told him no comment, Pete suggested he tape a sign to his door with those words.. that people would stop knocking. A simple act of kindness I hope provided maybe an ounce of respite during such a horrific nightmare.

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Every time my children and I see a firefighter or police officer, I try to make a point to encourage my boys to go up and tell them thank you, and to teach them these are people who go to work everyday to keep us safe. It deeply saddens me to say today’s current climate regarding mass shootings is more ‘common’ than it was ten years ago. Today, a mass shooting is a quick mention on CNN or nightly news, forgotten after a few days. In 2007, our city had never experienced anything like this before. When those calls started flooding 911, it was deputies, officers, and paramedics who moved in, risking their own lives and well being to help strangers. They saw the aftermath. They saw the nightmare. Once the adrenaline fades, once the threat is neutralized, how do you ever shake those images out of your memory?

I am grateful for every one of the heroes who moved in that day, not knowing what was in front of them. I am also grateful for every hero working right now in their cruiser, station or firehouse… because I know they’d move in to help me, too. And unfortunately, we all now know IT COULD HAPPEN.. to any of us.

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To this day, I’m still surprised that Micky agreed to a TV interview about what happened to her inside of Von Maur that day, but honored she trusted us to share it. Now ‘retired’ photojournalist Justin Riviera and I arrived at her apartment, beautifully decorated with figurines and family pictures. It had only been a few months since the shootings.

Micky had almost died that day.. shot point blank inside Von Maur. I asked Micky if she made eye contact with the shooter; I guess I expected her to say no, it was all a blur. Chills went down my spine as she told us that he looked her straight in the eyes, then shot her in the abdomen.

Micky later wrote a book with author June Blair.

“The only thought that came to me in that surreal moment was to lie as still as I could. He was still shooting at every living, moving target. Suddenly, there was silence and then the helpless sounds of voices pleading for help. I mustered up every drop of strength left in my body as I, too, let out a garbled ‘help’.”

Micky’s book is entitled 35 Minutes and Counting (click here for details). She was on the floor for 35 minutes as first responders ensured the shooter was dead, evacuated the store, and found Micky lying on the floor of Von Maur, alive. For the rest of her life, Micky was in physical pain from her injuries, and emotional pain from what she had been through. She wrote Justin and I a letter after Fourth of July, noting how badly the fireworks affected her. She was such a kind, strong woman who had been through incredible challenges throughout her life.. she didn’t deserve this.

Micky passed away in 2016.

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Von Maur

Photo courtesy Dailykos.com

We stood there huddled together outside Von Maur. First there was one.. then a few.. then hundreds of bouquets of flowers blanketing the steps leading up to the doors. I don’t remember why we had gathered there, but I know there were family members throughout the crowd. I remember someone speaking (or trying to speak) and softly, it began. Silent Night.

Within moments, the entire crowd… reporters, photographers, city officials and police officers, loved ones of those lost, strangers… we were all singing Silent Night together.

It was so beautiful, one of the clearest memories I have from those days. The unity of the human spirit, joined together to support one another and to hold our broken spirits together.

I’d see the snowflakes later… thousands of them, handmade and plastered all over the walls separating Von Maur from the mall itself. This would become a symbol of support for the victims’ families.. showing them they weren’t alone in this tragedy.

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I debated writing this because I don’t want to seem like I’m exploiting this anniversary, or this terrible day. But by not writing or posting anything, I fear worse.. that those most touched by this day will think I, and others, have forgotten. We will NEVER FORGET.

I will never forget the courage and bravery of our first responders.

I will never forget the strength of survivors like Micky Oldham and Fred Wilson.

Throughout my career in journalism, I never forgot about the compassion and balance I learned from my colleagues the day after and in the days that followed.

I will never forget the love that exists in all of us, even in the darkest of times.

For all of you touched by that day, especially those still suffering and hurting, my thoughts and prayers are with you today.

 

This Just Into The Newsplex..

Someday, I want to write a book.  Maybe I’d be the only person to ever read it.. but I love to write, and I’d love to record my memories of working in TV news before all of the hairspray finally permeates my skull. (Let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time.). This May marks my 15th anniversary working in journalism, all of it at KETV.  In May of 2001 I began my first news internship at 2665 Douglas, hired by legendary assignment editor Joe Kasmir.  In so many of my memories, there are a few consistent names and faces.  My mentor Joe, who passed away suddenly years ago.  My ‘TV husband’ Rob, a journalist I revered growing up in Papillion, who became a friend I respect even more today. And a guy behind the camera, who has spent decades of his life devoted to our craft and to our story here at KETV.  His name is Scott Buer.

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Photo courtesy Kent Sievers, renowned photographer with the Omaha World Herald

You may not recognize Scott, but if you’ve watched KETV AT ALL since the 1980’s, you’ve seen his work.  He is also our chief photojournalist, hiring and working with our team of photographers to shoot and edit the stories you see every night.  Scott turned 60 this week.. and when I tried to pinpoint one memory of this guy to share a birthday wish on Facebook.. I just couldn’t narrow it down.  Here’s just a sample of why.

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May, 2004.  Scott and I were assigned to follow up on a terribly tragic story; two teenagers had died in a car accident in Elkhorn, Kayla Wilkins and Nick Alfrey.  When we walked into that house, I was overwhelmed at the grief this family was facing; Kayla was only 15 years old, she was the youngest child.  Her big brother bravely accepted the ‘speaking role’ for his family and sat down with us to share his memories of his baby sister.  12 years later, I can still picture him describing sitting at his sister’s side in the hospital, knowing her time was short.  He started singing to her ‘You Are My Sunshine’, a song she had copied from him when he was learning to play piano as a kid.  He told us that as he sang the words to his sister in the hospital, her heart rate suddenly started increasing on the monitors.. and then it stopped.  Kayla was gone.

Kayla Wilkins

Kayla Lynne Wilkins * August 31, 1988 – May 5, 2004

As a journalist, you’re supposed to be a brick wall, right?  You’re supposed to be immune to emotion.  I couldn’t hold back the tears.. but in that moment, Scott, my seasoned partner for the day, spoke out.  He said, ‘let’s just take a second.’  We turned the camera off.  We just sat in silence, and we cried.

When we finished our interview, Scott and I hadn’t made it more than a few blocks down the street.  He pulled over, turned off the car and said again, ‘let’s just take a break for a minute.’

To this day, that was one of the hardest stories I’ve ever covered at KETV, magnified years later when one of our own, photojournalist Jeff Frolio, died at that very intersection covering a story.  His cross went up alongside Kayla and Nick’s crosses; the Wilkins family attended Jeff’s services.  We met yet again years after that, when their eldest daughter, Amber, suffered a traumatic brain injury in another terrible car accident.  Amber later told KETV’s Hannah Pickett that she remembers her sister, Kayla, with her in the medical helicopter after the crash.. kissing her nose and telling her to fight.

CLICK HERE to watch Amber Wilkins’ miraculous story on KETV.

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Another crash.. this time around, I don’t have a date for you, but I do remember the day.  It was bright outside.. and Scott and I were again working together, this time at the scene of the accident.  Law enforcement had shut down the road.. a mangled car with the side completely crushed in was a few yards in front of us.  I heard it before I saw it.. the whir of helicopter blades as the medical chopper drew closer.  I looked up and watched it approach… but before it landed, even before it hovered over our heads, the pilot turned around.  I didn’t understand what was going on.. where were they going??

I looked at the car, and the paramedics on scene pulled a sheet up over what was left of the vehicle.  Scott explained to me it was too late.  As I stood there, speechless, Scott handed me a rosary.  He told me that he kept it with him all the time.

I’m not as devout a Christian as I sometimes wish I was.. but I remember asking my mom for a rosary for Christmas soon after that.  I carry it in my purse now.. and on really tough days, like anchoring our coverage of Officer Kerrie Orozco’s funeral.. that little piece of jewelry gives me a little comfort.

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This date, I will never forget.  December 5, 2007.

I was in VERY early that day to cover President George W. Bush’s visit to Omaha.  It was a long and COLD morning, and I was pretty pumped to be back in the Newsplex by 1pm with two stories shot.  I had a full four hours to piece together our story in house (which is an ETERNITY in local news.)  I was sitting at my desk when the scanners went off.. and the first thing I remember hearing is ‘man down at the bottom of the escalator.’

I’ve referenced a few of my memories before.. News Director Rose Ann Shannon shouting ‘we’ve got to put everything we’ve got on this!’  Somehow, she just knew something unprecedented was happening.

I don’t remember if we were told, or if we just moved, but Scott and I ran, together, out the back door to his news unit.  I remember him ‘shushing’ me as he pushed buttons on his car scanner, trying to find the radio dispatch channel for the first responders.  We were locked in traffic on West Dodge, going up the hill near 90th.. and a police cruiser passed us at full speed ON the median to our left. Driving ON the median.

Scott parked at the hotel southeast of Westroads Mall.. it overlooked the south entrance to Von Maur without us getting too close and interfering with first responders.  The police helicopter.. it was so damn low.. so close to the roof, just circling.  Police officers and deputies were moving close to the building, protective shields up, inching closer and closer to the doors.. I had an eerie flashback to a story I had done just months before with the La Vista Police Department, watching as their officers practiced active shooter training.  This was no practice.. and as one of our reporters interviewed a shopper who’d run out of the mall, I remember shuddering as I realized, ‘this is happening TO US.  This is really happening.’

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CLICK HERE to watch Kristyna Engdahl’s story on the 8-year anniversary of the Von Maur Shootings.. including an interview with the first inside that day.. Lt. Rob Jones

I had breaks, moments to sit in the truck and listen to what was happening.  Scott never did.  He stood behind his camera and captured every moment all afternoon and into the night.  We didn’t know who would come out, if they’d come out.  We weren’t sure how many had died inside.

The Omaha Police Chief was out of town, so the lead public information officer, Sgt. Teresa Negron, was our source for details.  I’d worked with the Sergeant every morning for a few years, going to headquarters to check police reports.  She is a TOUGH WOMAN; she later went on to the Omaha Police homicide unit and the cold case unit.  That day, her voice shook as she gave the first official statements on what happened inside Von Maur.  Nine people were dead, including the shooter.  Several more were hurt and taken to area hospitals, two of them near death.

Still up in that hotel parking lot, Scott, engineer Josh Rishling and I were all huddled around the monitor in our live truck listening.  I put my hand on Josh’s arm, stunned at what we were hearing.  We then looked at each other as police announced the hotel we were just feet from would become the gathering place for any family members who were looking for information.

As the sun set on that cold, gloomy December day, numerous police units began driving up into that parking lot.. soon followed by vehicle after vehicle, filled with people hoping for answers.  I remember one woman with glasses behind the wheel of mini-van, clutching her steering wheel in one hand, the fingers of her other hand gripping a cell phone pressed to her ear.  As we went live, reporting what we were seeing, Scott said to me, ‘Brandi, the Christmas lights just turned on.’

The white string of bulbs around the Von Maur building glowed that night just as they did every other evening during the holiday season.  It was such a stark contrast to the parking lot.. empty and silent.  They were supposed to symbolize joy and peace.. yet inside was pure horror.  I think it reminded both Scott and I that that mall, that building was jam-packed with people, shopping for their loved ones.. and that some of those families would never see their mothers, fathers, children, and friends again.

So many heavy images, feelings and sounds from that day and the days that followed.. but I also think of a moment that still makes me smile.  Other than hot dogs and water from the Red Cross, Scott and I hadn’t had much to eat or drink that day.  KETV sports anchor Matt Schick (now with ESPN) called me around 10:30-11 asking if he could bring us anything.  I asked for chicken nuggets.. and when I leaned over to Scott and asked him, he grabbed my cell phone and VERY urgently said, ‘I NEED CIGARETTES!’  I laughed.. certainly for the first time that day, and one of the last times for the next several days.

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I’m breaking what I consider a huge journalistic rule by writing this post..and that is that WE are not the story.  WE are not the stars of the show. We are simply the narrators, the story tellers, the recorders of our city and state’s history.  Still, as a student of history, I wonder if maybe one of you reading this will connect with these same memories and think back to where you were when you heard about each of these moments. Selfishly, I hope my sons someday pick up ‘Mom’s book’ just to see what their momma did for her job.

I hope this post does one more thing… to tell Scott Buer THANKS.  For teaching me it’s OK to cry as a journalist; it doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re human.  For showing me it helps to seek out what gives you strength, and that as different as we all are from one another, there are bigger things that connect all of us to each other. And finally, for being a damn good partner in the field on some of the toughest days we’ve ever faced as journalists.  YOUR stories of covering nearly 40 years of news always refuel my fire to constantly strive to be a better journalist.

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Happy Birthday, my friend.  Here’s to many more days of storytelling together.

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For Kayla Wilkins, Nick Alfrey, Jeff Frolio, Joe Kasmir, Gary Scharf, Beverly Flynn, Angie Schuster, Dianne Trent, John McDonald, Gary Joy, Janet Jorgensen, and Maggie Webb.. may they rest in peace.  And for the Wilkins family, Fred Wilson, and Micky Oldham, your strength continues to inspire me.

Party Like A Journalist

There’s a twitter account I ADORE right now: @JournalistsLike.  The account administrator (I’m not even sure who he/she is!) shares tweets from around the country from journalists, using #PartyLikeAJournalist as our connecting thread.

@SunGriwkowskyC: Wonder if the fact that the election is on Cinco de Mayo will mean newsroom burritos instead of the traditional pizza?

@MissyRileyNews: I probably won’t sleep until Sweeps is over.

@jlivi2: Waiting for calls back like…….

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Speaking for my fellow reporters here at KETV.. it is AMAZING how representative this is!!  We ALWAYS have pizza on election night!  Ratings periods, dubbed ‘sweeps’ in TV news, are arguably the most stressful times of our year when we put in extra hours for more in-depth stories.  And waiting for calls.. on deadline.. often FEELS like FOR.EV.ER.

No matter what market you’re working in, where you are at in your career, or what type of beat you cover in news every day, there are things that bind us all together as journalists.  I saw that firsthand Friday night at the Omaha Press Club, honored to present closing remarks at the 2015 OPC Scholarship Awards Dinner, which also recognized this year’s Career Achievement and Journalism Educator Award winners.

I was also at this dinner 12 years ago… as a scholarship recipient.

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The recipients of the Mark O. Gautier, Jr. Intern Award.  SIX of us either work or have worked at KETV.

When I applied for this scholarship, I had interned at KETV THREE SEPARATE TIMES; twice in news and once in sports.  I was a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and mentioned to my mentor, the man who hired me and guided me through each of my internships, KETV Assignment Editor Joe Kasmir, that I was applying for the Gautier Award.  Joe suggested I ask KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon to write me a letter of recommendation.  Thankfully she did, and with her much appreciated support I was honored with this scholarship.  It was the first of many ways Rose Ann offered me a hand when I was a green, wannabe broadcaster, opening a door for me to get into this business with a little extra oomph to push me along.

This is all part of what I shared in my speech Friday night, and I’m sharing it all here on my blog as well with a few hopes; first, that it encourages anyone reading this to consider a donation the Omaha Press Club Scholarship fund, and second, that maybe it connects–that we connect–with aspiring journalists just like I once was.  These awards not only provide a nice financial bonus for students who are often trying to take on unpaid journalism internships in addition to classwork, but it shows them someone out there believes in them.  Someone wants them to succeed.  Someone thinks they’ve got what it takes to be a journalist; to tell good stories, to tell their community what’s going on in the world, and to be trusted that what we are telling them is FACT.  I didn’t think Rose Ann Shannon even knew my name back then; I won that scholarship and thought, ‘hey, maybe she does know who I am.. and maybe she thinks I’m doing a good job.’

Three of this year’s scholarship recipients, one from each university represented, briefly spoke at Friday night’s ceremony.  Mara Klecker has already spent time in Australia and Ecuador, chronicling current events and interning with major outlets like National Geographic.  Scott Prewitt is the editor-in-chief of the Creightonian, even filming, editing and narrating a mini-documentary which debuted at the Omaha Film Festival.  Matthew Barros has been an active contributor to UNO sports radio and spoke with so much enthusiasm and professionalism Friday night, he made US excited to be in the same field as him.  I daresay I speak for many people in that audience as to how excited we are that these students are the future of our business.

Broadcasting is constantly evolving and changing, never more than now.  The world can turn to Twitter, to Facebook, to cable, to text messages and Google searches, but in the end, journalists can provide something no one else can: FACT.  True information.  We are the microphone for the child’s voice who isn’t heard.  We are the siren for the scandal under the radar.  We are clarity when people are confused and need answers.  And we are passing the torch on to people like the 18 students in that room Friday night.  It’s an awesome responsibility, and it’s one hell of a ride.

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Photo courtesy Dailykos.com

December 5, 2007 was a day that arguably, no Omaha journalist will ever forget.  We all started very early that day because President Bush was in the city.  By early afternoon, most of us were back in our buildings, formulating presidential visit coverage for our newscasts, websites and papers.  1:00, I was sitting at my desk when the scanners in our newsroom started going crazy; there had been a shooting.  Rose Ann came out of her office and we all heard ‘man down at the bottom of the escalator.’  I will never forget Rose Ann’s reaction in that moment, saying ‘we’ve got to put everything we’ve got on this.’  In those short seconds, I hadn’t even had time to process what dispatchers were saing, yet Rose Ann just KNEW this event was unprecedented.  Her instinct told her this was very, very bad.

Inside Westroads Mall, a teenager had shot and killed nine people, including himself, and wounded four others.  That cold, overcast day right before Christmas became one of the darkest days in Omaha history.

But that’s the thing.  That day was history.  As unthinkable, as tragic, and as terrible as that day was, Omaha journalists chronicled that history.  It’s our job to tell people what is going on.  Thankfully we also cover INCREDIBLE moments; reunions, joyous events that bring us to tears, things that literally seem to be miracles before our eyes.  I’ll never forget covering my first Nebraska football game, standing on the field at Memorial Stadium and literally feeling the adrenaline rise within me as 85,000 fans surrounding me screamed for the Huskers.  Who else, in what job, gets to witness history like journalists?

The other reason I brought this up Friday was because of what Rose Ann showed me that day: instinct.  Sheer listening, feeling, knowing what was a story before anyone else did.  Rose Ann has been in broadcast journalism now for 40 years, and that day, it was like she was still a beat reporter out in the field everyday.  SHE JUST KNEW.

THAT is something within all journalists, something that drives us to want to tell stories, and to tell the rest of the world what is going on.  It’s the common thread that links all of us, from the college student just starting out, to the news veteran with decades under his or her belt.

And all of us were in one room together Friday.  Ironically, as I spoke to these 18 scholarship recipients and their families, I also spoke to Rose Ann, still my News Director, Larry Walklin, my college professor, and arguably the best of the best in Nebraska news.  Rose Ann and Dr. Walklin were honored Friday night for their dedication and accomplishments in journalism.

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KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon, receiving the 2015 Omaha Press Club Career Achievement Award

To Rose Ann and Dr. Walklin, THANK YOU for believing in me and helping me believe in myself a little more.  Thank you to all of the parents, teachers, mentors and friends who encourage and support aspiring journalists; the hours are long, the timing is terrible and the stress is high.  Most of all, to the 18 men and women who are joining us in this crazy world, and reigniting our passion all over again, CONGRATULATIONS, and good luck.

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CONGRATULATIONS to the following 2015 OPC Scholarship recipients!

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA – LINCOLN

Joseph Hoile, Vanessa Daves, Jane Ngo, Madison Wurtele, Brent BonFleur, Mara Klecker, Christopher Heady, Natasha Rausch

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA – OMAHA

Angela Eastep, Matthew Barros, Nick Beaulieu, Maria Brown, Marin Krause

CREIGHTON UNIVERSITY

Anthony Robinson, Catherine Adams, Michael Holdsworth, Krysta Larson, Scott Prewitt

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Click here for more information about the Omaha Press Club and how to become a member. (You DO NOT need to be a working media member to join!)

Click here for more information about the Omaha Press Club Foundation and scholarships for future journalists.